I never included sex, drugs and four-letter words gratuitously for shock value. My goal was to depict high school life as it truly was, not how many adults wanted it to be. Ironically, to depict teenagers realistically, SLOPPY FIRSTS had to be published as adult fiction—not young adult! (And for the record, my parents were both high school teachers and they believed my fiction was tamer than reality.)
A couple of weeks ago when I discussed the classification of Red Rising as an adult novel, I could almost see it as adult—if I squinted my eyes real tight and held it two feet from my face. But this book? Shocked. I was shocked.
Sloppy Firsts is the first novel in the Jessica Darling series. The heroine, Jessica Darling, starts the novel at fifteen, turning sixteen in the course of it. She’s (obviously) in high school, and the two main plot points revolve around her dealing with her best friend’s move out of state and her feelings towards her new crush—two very YA-centric themes. It’s written as a diary, so the reader really understands how Jessica feels about her body, sex, friends, and boys. To me, it’s just the ultimate YA book.
I thought back to sixteen-year-old-me—the me that fell in love with Sloppy Firsts. I remember laughing, relating, and empathizing. I loved the heroine, Jessica Darling. She had body images; she wasn’t perfect; her inner monologue was hilariously scathing. In short, she was a lot like sixteen-year-old me (or at least she was a lot like the sixteen-year-old me I wanted to be). But I don’t remember thinking, “Golly gee, this book sure does have a lot of sex and cussing in it. That’s something I’ve never come across. I think I’ll have sex and cuss now.” I can assure you that a YA novel was not the first place I came across the concept of sex or heard a bad word.
Honestly, if I noticed the sex and cussing at all, it was to notice that the book painted a much more realistic picture of my high school and friends than any other book I’d ever read. I don’t know what that says about me and my friends, but I doubt we were unique. Surely other sixteen-year-old girls are aware of sex. Surely they’ve heard people cussing.
One problem is that sex in YA is almost always done in a very specific way: the old “fade-to-black” sex scene. For example, Hazel and Augustus have (implied) sex in The Fault in Our Stars. Even Bella and Edward have sex in Breaking Dawn (sure, they’re married, but why should a social construct like marriage make a significant difference?). In fact, Breaking Dawn has one of the best examples of the fade-to-black that I can think of:
His arms wrapped around me, holding me against him, summer and winter. It felt like every never ending in my body was a live wire.
“Forever,” he agreed, and then pulled us gently into deeper water.
The sun, hot on the bare skin of my back, woke me in the morning.
As readers, we know sex is happening in these books. What we don’t know is the mechanics. Was a condom used? Did it hurt? Was she scared? Did it feel good? Did he ask her if she was ready? Did they talk together about whether it was the right time? Maybe the books don’t need to answer those questions—but it doesn’t mean teen readers aren’t asking them. In these novels, characters don’t talk about sex. They just have it. Is that really better?
Sometimes, the author attempts to leave it even more ambiguous than the fade-to-black. Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, explained why she chose to leave readers guessing at whether or not her hero and heroine had sex:
“I was concerned about not alienating my very young readers. I remember reading books at that age and stopping because I wasn't comfortable. I'm not trying to talk down to them. It's definitely a scene of great intimacy. That's what was important. I didn't want to have smut on the page. I don't want to titillate."
In an age where sex education is still a taboo subject, maybe it’s not a bad idea to have our YA books include frank discussions of sex and lust. Isn’t it better that teens read about it in books, where there is context and emotions, than watch sexually explicit TV shows and movies? And, sure, you can make every book with discussions about sex “adult,” but that just means that teens will seek out “adult” books.
There is no easy answer when it comes to sex and YA. I obviously don’t know the answer. But I have to ask, what kind of message are we sending? That it’s okay to have sex, but it’s not okay to talk about it?
Not all YA books need to include in depth discussions of sex. Many don’t need to include sex at all. The problem is the rather disturbing trend of including sex as a subject to be glossed over and implied from hushed corners—never discussed. YA books don’t treat sex in a real, relatable way. And when they do, like Sloppy Firsts, we slap the “adult” label on them.